Geartalk: The Olympus OM-D EM-5 in Low-Light Conditions

Don’t miss Geartalk: First Impressions Olympus OM-D EM-5 published earlier for daylight and indoor mixed-lighting shooting performance

The high ISO, low-light capabilities of the Olympus OM-D EM-5 is one of the camera’s most popular discussion points. Generally, previous Micro Four Thirds (M43) cameras have struggled with anything higher than ISO1600; noise of the speckled type (instead of the can-be-pleasing-grainy type) just takes over in the darker areas of the image. But the new OM-D is a different beast altogether.

Equipped with a new 16MP sensor, a significant upgrade from the sensors of earlier Olympus M43 cameras, the OM-D takes on low-light challenges with gusto. Noise is kept to very acceptable levels, even into ISO6400 territory, and with the built-in Noise Reduction switched off. As an added bonus, it also looks like the sensor is able to handle very strong mixed lighting conditions as well, with detail retained in areas of the image you would otherwise expect to be blown out; the dynamic range of the sensor is excellent. Not sure Olympus managed to pull this off given the size of the M43 sensor, quite possibly a new technique to increase the sensitivity of the photosites. 

A final comment about the camera performance in low-light, perhaps the most important one: AF remains fast and snappy. Perhaps just a shade off the pace in normal lighting situations, but i can safely say i didn’t miss anything because i had to wait for a hunting AF. Having used an Fuji X-Pro1 recently in similar conditions, i would say, the AF speed of the OM-D is at least 3x-4x faster. Yes, it’s that fast (or the X-Pro1 is that slow, whichever way you want to look at it). Having said that, X-Pro1 high ISO performance and IQ is excellent, but a hunting AF can be quite a deal breaker for many.

The following images were taken after the Russell Peters Notorious World Tour 2012 performance at Stadium Malawati, Shah Alam. Light sources were limited to very bright stadium spotlights that created a dull ambient glow in the shadows. Processed using my normal workflow in Lightroom, perspective adjusted to the more cinematic 16:9. None of the files required any special attention, they were reasonable out of the camera.

A note about the lens used that night: a Panasonic 14mm f/2.5 ASPH LUMIX G. Wide open, it’s pretty sharp in the middle and quite soft around the edges; the softness is managed with a combination of some cropping and vignetting. Besides the slight softness around the edges (that completely goes away by f4.0), it’s an excellent lens. Will do a review of the lens once i’ve had some time to use it in a variety of situations.


The crowd leaving the stadium after the show. Some highlights were blownout around the bright light, but consider that the rest of the foreground was almost pitch darkness. Some fill light used to bring out the detail; quite impressed with how much details was captured in spite of it all.


I watched this lady for several minutes as she furiously texted on her phone. She was obviously waiting/trying to find a friend who had been separated from her in the large stadium and the chaotic manner in which the crowd dispersed. Don’t let the image deceive you — there was very very little light in this photo. A spotlight a couple of hundred meters behind me illuminating shadows against the stairs, and another spotlight a few hundred meters behind her. It was very very dark. Some noise at ISO3200 but it was kept very much under control.


Perhaps this is the group of friends the lady in the previous photo were waiting for. There is another raised staircase just around the corner from where the lady was waiting. This group seemed to be waiting for someone as well. The spotlight in the top left corner? That’s the light source for the previous photo.


The dynamic range torture test. Notice the amount of detail in the lighted areas, the staircase and doors. Pretty amazing considering (a) everywhere else was pretty much dark and (b) the light areas are quite bright. Click on the photo for the larger version to see more detail.


The rustic, empty, and tomb-like quiet of the ticket box offices. This was nearly an hour after the show ended. Traffic was terrible so i stuck around to take photos of the stadium architecture. Again, the detail retained in the brightly lit areas AND in the shadows is very good. The processor manages to balance it out nicely.